"As tourism grows in Berlin, history buffs become tour guides "
A cold Berlin wind blows in from Siberia, but Neil Cameron still mounts his bike, pulls a skullcap down over his shaggy blonde hair and begins to pedal. On his bike, he’s free of his worries; he doesn’t have to think about what he’s doing with his life or if he made the right choices.
He’s an expatriate with a story to tell and a sense of belonging in a city that has reinvented itself six times in 140 years.
“Berlin was a city I visited consistently over my teenage years,” said Cameron in an email. “It was the one place that really grabbed my attention. The graffiti, the history and the rawness of Berlin were all very appealing to me.”
Cameron’s not only biking for fun – now he’s doing it for money. Five days a week, Cameron stands with his bike in front of the iconic TV Tower at Alexanderplatz in the former East Berlin awaiting anxious tourists.
Cameron is a tour guide – and a good one, according to numerous tourists who have taken his tours with Fat Tire Bike Tour, the company where he has worked for eight years. As a tour guide Cameron’s love for teaching and learning is fulfilled and he has the freedom of not being confined within four walls of an office. It’s also a decent salary, he said.
He wouldn’t specify exactly how much he makes, but according to Job Monkey, full-time tourist guides made $30,000-$60,000 a year, depending on base salary and tips. In a famously inexpensive city like Berlin, that’s more than enough for a single man to live on.
Cameron is one of the more than 44,000 English-speaking expatriates who have made Berlin their home since the fall of the Berlin Wall 25 years ago, according to Toytown Germany, a news outlet for English speakers in Germany. He’s also one of a growing number – no one is tracking exactly how many – of well-spoken history buffs who are moving to the city and taking jobs as tour guides.
“The proverbial ‘scene’ [in Berlin] is constantly restless looking for new development opportunities and has become more attractive and trendy. This openness attracts people who want promising opportunities and a prospect for the future,” Berlin Guide-Verband Der Berliner, the official association of professional tour guides in Berlin, writes on its website.
Tour guides have become a professional staple in Berlin as tourism has become the city’s biggest industry. Berlin had 11.6 million visitors last year, according to the Berlin-Brandenburg Statistics Office.
Berlin has been a historical hotbed for more than a century and has been home for Prussian royals, Weimar idealists, Nazi thugs and Soviet conquerors who rolled tanks through the city’s famous Brandenburg Gate.
For the past 25 years – since the fall of the Berlin Wall on Nov. 9, 1989 – Berlin has gained buzz as a destination city full of textured history; a place where atrocity and redemption occurred and where all night techno parties and unregulated hedonism exist alongside start-ups and buttoned-up government officials who are trying to carve out a new history in the reunified capital.
“International visitors made up 43 percent of the overnight stays in Berlin last year – a new record,” said Burkhard Kieker, VisitBerlin’s CEO. “Berlin’s growing twice as fast as the general trend in Germany.”
The increase of tourists, especially international, means Cameron’s job changes every day. Every time he takes people out, they ask questions from different perspectives.
“I love the diversity of the people you meet,” he said. “On any given day you could meet a couple from South Korea, a solo traveler from Brazil and a family from India. Meeting all of these different kinds of people and hearing their stories is what keeps the job fresh.”
Cameron has not always had the love for other cultures he does now. Cameron, growing up in Manchester, England, said he had a somewhat ethnocentric sense of the world. He thought the British were the center of the world, and he had negative feelings about Germany.
“Being English there has always been an underlying sense of racism towards Germany because of the world wars. I also think it’s because of the xenophobic media,” he said. “I have to admit I felt a little of that growing up.”
But Cameron’s father, a history professor, helped him overcome this sense of superiority he learned in school and in newspapers. His father taught him to appreciate how the German people had to adapt to changing political landscapes, the accidents of history that led to the rise of Hitler and the open way Germans have handled their post-war responsibilities.
“As I grew older I realized that the resentment was actually jealousy,” Cameron said.
Today, Cameron loves to talk about German history, particularly World War II, and the impact it had on the world, on Germany and on the German psyche. He sprinkles his tours with talks of modern Germany and how today’s generation of Germans is finally emerging from the collective sense of guilt their parents and grandparents felt.
One of his favorite stops on his tours is the site of what was once Adolf Hitler’s bunker and the place where Hitler and his top Nazi officers – including his propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels and his wife – committed suicide in April 1945 as the Soviets entered Berlin. It’s now a parking lot.
The Soviet army – which occupied and then took possession of what became East Berlin after the war ended – destroyed the underground bunker and filled it with sand to prevent the site from becoming a shrine or memorial. But that’s not the part Cameron likes to talk about. What he enjoys most is talking about what’s at the site now.
Cameron excitedly points to the monstrous “luxury” apartments, built under the Communist East German Democratic Republic in the 1960s and then to Lucky Star, a trendy Chinese restaurant that recently opened over the left side of the former bunker. Finally – and Cameron can barely contain himself here – he points across the parking lot to the Gate Sauna, a spa for gay men, that opened less than a year ago and that overlooks the site of Hilter’s last days.
He smiles gleefully and says, “This is irony you just can’t make up.”
Hitler specifically targeted communists and homosexuals in his manic drive to build a pure Aryan nation.
Cameron reads voraciously and goes to museum exhibits in order to keep his tours dynamic and make sure he can answer as many questions as possible. Charles Odom, Cameron’s boss and the director of business development with Fat Tire Bike Tours, has noticed Cameron’s desire to constantly learn and make tours more interesting.
“Great tour guides are teachers, entertainers, trainers, safety officers, motivational speakers, networkers, historians and constant learners,” he said in an email. “It’s a tough job and Neil never fails to deliver.”
Cameron loves his job so much he can’t imagine ever going back to school – he never finished college – or sitting inside all day behind a desk.
Cameron also doesn’t see a change in location anytime soon either. Berlin, with all its wildness and contradictions suits him perfectly.
“The great thing about this job is that there is always more to know,” he said. “The history is so rich here that I am forever reading new material or watching new documentaries to further myself.”
Cameron said he still has more to discover.